Rarely has such a bizarre story come forward in the annals of Delaware history as that of Helen Rogers Bradford of Wilmington. Just 25 years old, the socialite married Thomas Budd Bradford, a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, in 1888. Living in a fashionable neighborhood, the couple was soon blessed with the birth of a boy, Thomas B. Bradford Jr., in 1890.
The young couple, both from good stock and social standing, had everything to look forward to. Helen’s grandfather was Thomas Rogers, a steam locomotive and machine works tycoon from New Jersey. Her parents, Theodore and Mary Rogers, came to Delaware, where her father built a 27-room antebellum mansion in Dunleith, overlooking the Delaware River, between Wilmington and New Castle. Thomas’ family lines extended to two great Delaware families, Budd and Bradford.
Then, literally overnight, the couple’s promising future turned into an inexplicable nightmare. On the night of June 30, 1893, Dr. Bradford did not return home after his house calls in Wilmington and was never heard from again. Whether he suffered from amnesia, fell into the river and drowned, or was murdered, no one had a clue. Days and weeks went by, and Helen was left with no explanation of the whereabouts of her husband. Months came and went, and even nine years later when their only child died, there was still no response from the husband and father.
Helen went back to her family home in Dunleith, and as her family died off and the years passed, she became more isolated, seeking solace in the fine
religious art that adorned the home and a photographic collection of the Hollywood star Charles Boyer as the mansion began to deteriorate. In one room of the house was a Christmas tree, or its remains, long since fallen to dust. Surrounding the tree and heaped about the room were nearly 100 toys, left untouched since that last Christmas morning many years before when the Bradfords’ 10-year-old son died.
With the house crumbling, Helen died at age 80 on July 4, 1944, and was buried in the family mausoleum in the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery. She never found out what happened to her dear Thomas, who had been gone for over half a century. The mansion in Dunleith had been donated to charity, but little came of it, and it was eventually demolished. By the late 1940s, the 85-acre site was developed and became housing for blue-collar workers, returning
World War II veterans and teachers. Then, in 1950, Dunleith Estates became the first housing development where African-Americans could buy their own homes despite still-existent racial segregation.
But the most bizarre twist in the life (or in this case, the death) of Helen Rogers Bradford came after almost 60 years. On August 1, 2003, it was reported that ghouls had visited Helen’s tomb. A 300-pound stone slab was rolled away, her casket broken into and her skull stolen. Authorities had no clue as to the doers of such a dirty deed except a similar event had occurred earlier that summer in Wilmington’s Riverview Cemetery. It was surmised that a cult of African origin by the name of Palo Mayombe had been responsible.
There’s still more to Helen’s story. Her sister Annie was the second wife of William du Pont Sr., making Helen the aunt of William du Pont Jr. and Marion du Pont Scott (the wife of actor Randolph Scott) of Orange, Va. The latter two inherited the Dunleith Mansion property before it was torn down. And even though Helen and the mansion have been gone, lo, these many years, the family line still makes the news. Helen’s grandnephew John E. du Pont was found guilty of the murder of Olympic wrestler David Schultz in 1997. His story was the plot of the recent movie “Foxcatcher.”